Article: Bharti AXA Head HR calls for coaching women to tackle career & personal challenges – Here’s why


Bharti AXA Head HR calls for coaching women to tackle career & personal challenges – Here’s why

Dhanashree Thakkar emphasised the need to coach women to overcome personal challenges and prepare them for higher responsibilities.
Bharti AXA Head HR calls for coaching women to tackle career & personal challenges – Here’s why

Companies worldwide are recognising the immense value of having diverse perspectives and experiences in their leadership teams. While strides have been made in breaking down barriers to women's advancement in the workplace, significant challenges persist, particularly in the realm of personal development and overcoming obstacles. 

As organisations strive to create inclusive environments where all employees can thrive, it has become increasingly evident that women face unique personal challenges that can impact their career progression. These challenges range from imposter syndrome and self-doubt to balancing work and family responsibilities, navigating workplace biases, and overcoming societal expectations. 

Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond traditional professional development initiatives, stressed Ms. Dhanashree Thakkar, Head of Human Resources at Bharti AXA Life Insurance and suggested coaching as a powerful tool to empower women to overcome personal challenges, unlock their full potential, and thrive in their careers. 

During an exclusive interview with People Matters, she highlighted how coaching has long been recognised as a valuable resource for professional growth and leadership development, its potential in addressing personal challenges has often been overlooked. By providing tailored support, guidance, and encouragement, coaching can help women navigate the complexities of their personal and professional lives more effectively. 

Excerpts from the interview: 

What are the primary factors contributing to the gender gap in the workforce of India?

As per the ILO report for 2021, the participation of women in the workforce was 19.2% and that of men was 70.1%., with a staggering difference of 50%. The core of the problem of why we see the gender gap is as simple as ‘We don’t have enough women in the workforce’! Hence, to solve the gender gap, we must first get more women to join the workforce where it is a paid job!

The reasons why women don’t participate in the workforce are several. A primary reason is the social fabric, where women are raised, expected to, and almost believe that work is an option, often as a last resort, and their primary role is to be the caretaker for family. Women do contribute significantly to unpaid work; however, we still have a significant road to cover in terms of having more women in the workforce.

While there is some change, except for a very small population often in metro cities where women can make choices about how they want to lead their lives, in larger parts of the country, whether a woman wants to work or how she wants to lead her life is still dependent on her social and family ecosystem.

What challenges and stereotypes hinder women from more active and equal participation in the formal workforce?

The social conditioning that all of us are brought up with is about the role of women being more of a homemaker and mother of children, as seen since childhood, our social practices, and the movies and influences almost feeding that it is this gender that is responsible or irresponsible if she ignores or fails at this area. 

We have completely ignored the role of all genders as a whole. It is this conditioning that I feel acts as the biggest hindrance for more women in the workforce. Whenever, as women, we go against this conditioning, there are feelings of guilt and anxiety because we are not good daughters, wives, or mothers. 

It is this expectation or conditioning that leads to women dropping out of the workforce to “manage” their core responsibilities. As long as this is a conscious choice, however, one can’t deny the deep-rooted social validation when one fulfils the core role.

Just look, even today—the roles we encourage through toys kids play—boys and girls, girls have the kitchen sets, the baby dolls or Barbie's, and boys the masculine ones. These have far-rooted impacts, which impact the roles we expect them to play. And before we nod our heads, stating this isn’t true in today’s times, look beyond Metro’s. Even at the metro’s different areas and socio-economic levels, this is a reality.

The second key stereotype, again rooted in social conditioning, is the “and” work and family, work and family, and children’s responsibilities. This list goes on, almost leading to women believing and acting as if they have to be perfect and super women!

The way to influence or change this is by gradually making it acceptable for more men in so-called feminine roles—as a homemaker or a primary caregiver for kids. We can influence this through our movies, our advertisements, and our progressive policies, which allow for more acceptability for role reversal.

While this is a far-reaching social change that we all need to contribute to, the immediate needs are to continue incorporating flexibility to allow for the life changes women go through and to allow practical policies that allow them to balance their roles and ensure they stay in the workforce.

What specific initiatives has your organisation implemented to address this issue, and how are these initiatives tailored to the unique challenges faced by women in the workforce?

As a company, we currently have 27% women in our total workforce and look at increasing this to over 30% in the coming years. We have recently launched an organisation-wide initiative called Wonder Women Council, which looks at a threefold approach that includes hiring, development, and growth for women. The platform is for women across levels who are mentored by senior leaders, are allowed flexibility for work options, and go through a custom development path designed for women.

Women will be coached to overcome their personal challenges and groomed to take on higher responsibilities. 

Women staying on the margins of the formal workforce is a concern. What barriers to entry do you think exist for women, and how can companies actively work to remove or minimise these barriers?

The barriers to entry can be classified as sociocultural, personal, and organizational—as well articulated by Sharon Peake in her LinkedIn article. We discussed socio-cultural barriers at length in the earlier part of the article.

On the personal barriers, we need to help women manage their confidence and their mental grooming for taking on higher roles. While there are significant strengths women bring to the workforce, they struggle with assertions of power, amongst many other things. In organisations, we need to have more role models for women to emulate and actively need mentoring on managing higher roles. 

I remember when I was newly promoted as a CHRO—the voices in my head were about a lot of self-doubt and almost wanting to prove myself! It was the reassurance provided by my guide and manager who was the voice to say, Never question your competence. We need more managers who are observant and have this voice.

Organizational barriers include areas such as lack of equitable pay, lack of flexibility, low awareness of managers in areas where women may need help in a different competence area, and overall training that roles that women are supposed to play can be gender neutral. A lot of these can only be solved by more awareness, education, and policy-level changes. 

For example, the current wave of allowing flexibility for women post-maternity assumes and emphasizes that it is a woman’s job to be the caregiver. While I understand the practicality, we also have a social role to play where we need equal acceptance through paternity policies, which make it acceptable that a man can also be a primary caregiver while the mother works post-pregnancy. 

More mental imagery on gender-neutral work, such as Who cooks or who cares for children, and the unlearning of traditional gender roles is what we need to do if we really want to erase social conditioning. Only then can we truly “drive inclusion"  when we solve these issues at their root cause.

You can also read: 

Considering the industry-wide challenge, how can companies collaborate within the sector to share best practices and collectively address gender diversity issues?  

Improving the participation of women is a social responsibility we all carry. Quoting from an article titled Advancing women's role in India's economic progress by Ayesha a Siddiqa: The economic argument for fostering women's participation is undeniable, as India’s GDP could potentially increase by 27 per cent, equating to US$770 billion, if India can increase its female workforce participation to the same level as men. With our aspiration to be the 3rd largest economy by 2030, we need more women, and this can be a sectorial initiative that can be achieved through initiatives such as:

  • Increase hiring of women across the workforce through skill councils and hire-train-deploy models. Coming from the BFSI sector, women need to first be trained and accepted as financial experts.
  • Create more female role models at all levels with mentoring forums, groups, and specific development initiatives. 
  • Policy level changes at the sector level, which allow for paternity, flexibility, and cultural training for male managers.
  •  Actively driving the agenda with the regulator for BIMA Vahaks and more women at ground level to increase our reach.
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Topics: Skilling, Leadership, #HRTech, #HRCommunity

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